This post is in the Empathy category

Dear Reader

Bruce and Sheila represent a fairly typical Aspie / Neurotypical (NT) interaction in the musical workplace. The scenario was one I observed early on in the research process, when I was just beginning to become aware of the depth of my own traits. I had deliberately brought the two participants together, knowing that one of them had a diagnosis of Asperger’s. I was partly motivated by teaching and learning operations and partly because I could observe the outcome. The story falls under the somewhat grey area of creative non-fiction – the meaning is clear, but the event itself occurred under quite different circumstances.

Sheila is a singer. She writes her own songs at the piano and has developed significantly as a solo performer. This semester though, she will enter the studio for the first time to record. The situation is quite difficult for her, as she does not know any musicians at the university and will have to find session players and work with them to create arrangements for her songs. She is nervous about her ability as a songwriter, not having previously relied on others to bring her songs to life and interpret them.

Bruce is a guitarist who has come to my attention through an elective course I am teaching. A few years older than most of the cohort, Bruce has taken his time getting through his degree and is now doing some post graduate subjects. I had connected with him at the beginning of the semester through a third party who knew that we both had diagnoses of Asperger’s Syndrome. Over a few coffees I came to appreciate his intelligence and his candour, although his areas of obsessive interest were somewhat alien to my own. I also got to see him play his own compositions, and was convinced that he would be able to work musically with Sheila.

I introduced them over lunch one day as fellow musicians who had compatible needs in terms of assessments – Sheila needed a guitarist, and Bruce needed to demonstrate studio musicianship.

I left them to talk and removed myself to another part of the cafeteria, where I could see them but not hear the conversation. Bruce appeared to be quite animated but Sheila was still. At one point she leaned back on her chair and folded her arms, looking away for a moment. I wondered if things were going well. After a few minutes I saw Bruce stand up and leave, smiling and apparently happy with the exchange. He waved and nodded to me as he left. Meanwhile Sheila remained at her table. She looked stunned. She looked around and noticed that I was still in the café, and came over, plonking herself down across from me.

Sheila: Well that went well

Me: Good, did you make a timeframe?

Sheila: No, I mean I don’t think I can work with him

Me: Oh. What happened, I though he looked pleased.

Sheila: I said I’d heard that he was a pretty good guitarist, he said “yeah, I teach.” Which wasn’t what I was asking. I asked if he would be interested in playing on some of my songs for a recording, and he asked me what the standard of the songs was like – are they any good? So I told him I wrote them about my life and put my heart and soul in to them, that I have been singing them for some time. He just looks me up and down and says, “yeah, OK, so long as they’re not crap. I won’t play on them if they’re crap.” And he got up and left – said “see you tomorrow!”

Me: Ah

Sheila: Well what if he’s crap? Talk about judgemental, he made me feel like nothing! These are my songs he’s talking about! And he didn’t even notice I was pissed with him!

Me: OK, OK, we’d better find someone else. Will you tell him or shall I?

So I told him. I didn’t go into details, just that Sheila wanted to play the songs to a few people and get some ideas. “Shame,” he said. “She seemed like a really nice person. Nice speaking voice, I bet she can sing.” “Yes, she can,” I said. “Lovely songs, very personal, great melodies.” “Oh, well I look forward to hearing them. It’s hard to find songs that I feel like I can do justice to. Most people seem to want stuff that just anyone can play, I told her I wouldn’t play on crap songs.”

It was this incident that convinced me that I needed to videotape and examine my own interactions. Bruce was clearly aware that he had missed an opportunity with Sheila, that he was not being assessed on his musicianship, but something else entirely. But he did not know what it was – he had no idea that he had upset her, or that what he had said could upset her. I realised that this had happened to me on many occasions – things going wrong for non-musical reasons, but not knowing why.   I have had a few collaborations that were successful in their outcomes, but unsatisfying in their process, and people that I would like to work with again who never got back to me. It seemed likely that if Bruce had a similar diagnosis, I may have just seen something very similar to my own behaviour.

The thought that this display of lack of empathy and awareness might be a common occurrence in my own behaviour was quickly reinforced when I began videotaping my interactions in the studio.  The post Eric and Emmais one of the first results of this.

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